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Heidegger & Ethnic Nationalism

2,118 words


Heidegger doing his thing

Part 1 of 2 (Part 2 here [2])

Author’s Note:

This is the text of a lecture delivered at the London Forum on Saturday, May 27th. I want to thank Jez Turner, the London Forum team, and everyone who attended this event.  

Martin Heidegger, the most celebrated and influential philosopher of the 20th century, was an ethnic nationalist—and not just any old ethnic nationalist, but a supporter of German National Socialism. Moreover, Heidegger’s National Socialism was not merely the superficial infatuation of a politically naïve intellectual. Instead, it was a logical outgrowth of his philosophy. Which means that we can draw upon the most formidable thinker of our time to deepen, sharpen, and defend the ethnonationalist idea.

The kinds of political orders that men create are based on their fundamental worldviews: their sense of who they are, where they fit into the world, what is right and wrong, and what is politically possible. These are the questions of “metapolitics”: those things that come before the political, i.e., the intellectual and cultural presuppositions of political orders. Modern globalism follows from modern man’s self-image and ethos. Modern man is rootless and cosmopolitan. Modern man is individualistic. Modern man uses science and technology to pursue the mastery and possession of nature.

These three traits are beautifully illustrated in the opening pages of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. Howard Roark, the novel’s hero, has just been expelled from architecture school, basically because all he cared about learning was the science and technology of construction. He rejected the aesthetic tradition of architecture because he had his own vision. Supremely confident he can go it alone, he laughs off the defeat and goes swimming.

Rand describes Roark standing on a cliff overlooking his swimming hole. The water is still, so the rock is doubled by its reflection. There is blue sky above and blue sky below, so the rock appears to be floating in space. Then Rand adds an interesting little detail. Instead of the man standing on the rock jutting out of the earth, it appears that the rock is floating in space, “anchored to the feet of the man.”

But Roark does not laugh when he looks at the world around him. He does not see the living rock. He sees building stones. He does not see trees. He sees lumber. He sees the word as nothing more than a stockpile of resources to be appropriated and remade according to human plans—his plans. “These rocks, he thought, are waiting for me; waiting for the drill, the dynamite and my voice; waiting to be split, ripped, pounded, reborn; waiting for the shape my hands will give them.”

Howard Roark is rootless: he does not stand on the earth. Instead, the earth is just a big ball of natural resources floating through the void anchored to him. Howard Roark is an individualist. He rejects tradition in favor of his own “unborrowed” vision. Finally, Howard Roark uses science and technology to master and transform nature according to his designs.

How do cosmopolitan man, individualist man, and technological man all hang together (lest we hang them separately, I suppose)? Do they spring from a common root? The answer is yes, and it is a deep root, teaching all the way back to the origins of Western philosophy and natural science in ancient Greece.

In traditional societies, the notions of order do not differentiate between the human and the natural worlds. The Chinese talk about the tao, which is the “way” of both natural and human things. The same is true of the Greek notion of nomos, from which our idea of the laws of men and the laws of nature derive.

The early Greek natural philosophers, however, noticed that there was a difference between the ways of the natural and the human worlds. Human ways of life—languages and customs—vary from place to place (meaning that men have different cultures) and from time to time (meaning that cultures have histories). Human ways of life are particular, not universal. They are not unchanging, but Protean and restless and hard to pin down.

Nature, by contrast, was the same everywhere, and it changes so slowly that the Greeks thought it never changed at all, just went through endless cycles. The early Greek natural philosophers believed that the universal is better than the particular, the unchanging is better than the changing, and cyclical change is better than non-cyclical change (including “progress”). Nature’s laws are better than human laws. Nature allows certitude and predictability, whereas human customs lack these advantages. Thus the early Greek natural philosophers replaced the old idea of the way of things with a distinction between nature, which is universal and unchanging, and convention, which is particular and mutable—varying from time to time and place to place, never repeating or returning to the same. And they held that nature is better than convention, thus we should guide our lives by nature and not convention.

Consequently, the beginning of the philosophical life is to take an inventory of the human condition. When we do this, we discover that there is a human nature, unchanging and common to all men—such as our bodily desires—and a crust of conventions, which vary from time to time and place to place, and which were taught to us by the people around us long before we were self-conscious, much less capable of exercising critical reason. These conventions include language, myths, and morals, some that help and others that hinder our ability to live according to our nature.

To become a philosopher, we must free out minds from prejudices—from beliefs that we have uncritically accepted from our society. Plato likened society—the world of authoritative shared opinions—to a cave in which shackled prisoners are forced to watch the equivalent of an Indonesian shadow-puppet play and mistake it for reality. He likened the process of becoming a philosopher to liberating oneself from the prison of the cave of opinion and toiling upward to the surface of the Earth where one can live in the sunlit world of truth.

The beginnings of individualism and cosmopolitanism are basically the same: to obtain objective knowledge of universal, unchanging nature, one must liberate one’s mind from the realm of opinion or custom, which are inherently social, meaning that they are shared by a whole community. One must, in an important sense, cease to be a citizen of one’s homeland, for a citizen believes that the traditions of his homeland are authoritative. But if the philosopher is not a citizen of Athens or England, what is his homeland? When Diogenes the Cynic, who was born in Sinope, was asked the name of his hometown—his polis—he did not say that he was a citizen of Sinope, but a citizen of the world. The cosmos was his polis, from which we get the word cosmopolitan. To say that one is a cosmopolitan is to say that one is an emancipated individual who lives by reason in accordance with nature, which is universal and unchanging.

How does cosmopolitan and individualist man become technological man? The common root of all three is the use of reason, emancipated from social prejudice, to gain knowledge of nature. Once the cosmopolitan individual decides to take his bearings from reason and nature rather than custom and convention, he looks within and finds his natural human desires for food, comfort, security, etc. Then he looks around nature with unblinkered eyes for ways to satisfy himself. Having discarded any merely social conventions that might prevent him from gratifying his wishes at the expense of nature, scientific and technological progress was up and running.

Two other attitudes allied with the quest for objective knowledge feed into technological progress.

First, just as the philosopher looks below the crust of opinion to get to the truth of nature, the scientist looks below the surface of nature—and the myriad of natural kinds—to find a few simple underlying laws of nature, which allow him to better understand and transform nature according to our will. Thus to the scientist, the natural world we see around us looks more and more provisional. It looks more and more like a stockpile of resources for human projects.

Second, the Will-to-Power is implicit in the very notion of objective knowledge. For why prefer the universal and unchanging to the particular and protean? Because the universal and unchanging is secure. You can always count on it.  Thus it provides a secure foundation for our plans. There is a well-founded cliché about ugly Americans abroad going to McDonald’s rather than eating the local cuisine. But there is a logic to it, because the food at McDonald’s is universal and unchanging, so you always know what to expect. That is why I don’t eat the food at MacDonald’s, but I do stop in to use the toilets, because you can always count on clean restrooms. The driving force of objective conceptions of knowledge was a subjective desire for certitude and control that, over time, gave rise to such ideas as Platonic and Aristotelian forms, Cartesian representations, and eventually the operationalization of science in terms of technical feats of prediction and control.

But what if, as Heidegger argues, the primary source of meaning in life and the primary source of moral and aesthetic measure is our participation in the worlds of shared custom and opinion—in various ethnic communities—the very things that cosmopolitan, individualist, and technological man is concerned to leave behind? Heidegger’s answer is that a world deprived of meaning and measure will become a world of unbounded nihilism—nihilism spreading out in all directions.

A world without measure is also a world without borders and boundaries. It is a world in which distinct nations and races will disappear, for liberation from particular collective identities is the toll we pay to play the whole cosmopolitan game, and if the satisfaction of our desires is what life is all about, why let racial differences constrict your potential dating and mating pool?

But the universal, homogeneous global state will be no utopia. What is the meaning of life for cosmopolitan-individualist-technological man? Basically to appropriate, transform, and consume nature. And doing so without measure leads to what Heidegger called “the gigantic” (das Riesige): the realm of exploding populations, of cities surging upwards, plunging downwards, and sprawling out in all directions—a world where the new is always improved and more is always better—a world where knowing that you can do something is equivalent to knowing that you should do it—a world of an ever-expanding humanoid biomass, throbbing, swarming, and pullulating over the globe—until, at last, we crash into objective limits that we refused to see and factor into our plans, and the earth becomes a scorched boneyard, in which some of the skeletons enjoyed the privilege of a long string of zeros in their bank accounts before the lights blinked out forever and the world returned to being just lifeless matter in space.

If the beginning of Western philosophy and science are leading to that end, maybe it is time for a new beginning. In 1932, Heidegger began to think that the National Socialist movement was just the new beginning or inception (Anfang) he had hoped for. National Socialism stood for rootedness in a particular homeland, language, and tradition, as opposed to cosmopolitan rootlessness and the beep beep, boop boop of machine communication and the cha-ching of commerce, which are the true universal languages. National Socialism was about collectivism over individualism, the common good before individual interests. And National Socialism was very, very “green,” seeking to preserve nature and human-scale living from the depredations of industrialization and giantism. Thus in 1935, Heidegger declared in one of lectures that the “inner truth and greatness” of National Socialism was based on “the confrontation of global technology and modern man.”

Heidegger eventually became disillusioned with National Socialism. He came to see it not as the new beginning for which he hoped, but as just another form of modern technological nihilism. After the war, he promoted the myth that his support of National Socialism was just the blunder of a naïve and essentially apolitical thinker.

But nothing could be further from the truth. Heidegger’s philosophy was always political—and specifically ethnonationalist—both before and after the Third Reich, although after the war he took pains to obscure this fact. After the war, Heidegger largely refrained from speaking about political topics, but as a philosopher he patiently laid the metapolitical conditions for a new post-totalitarian critique of cosmopolitanism, individualism, and technological nihilism. In short, Heidegger was one of the founders of what we today call the New Right.